Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 46: The Jansenists


While Holland and England, both of which were won over to the formal freedoms of the bourgeois revolution, engendered a multitude of sects whose language (though still drawing upon theological artifices) decreasingly hid their ideological texture, the Catholic countries, which were prey to the intense troubles of the Counter-Reformation, once again found in monarchal and pontifical absolutism the guarantee of a Catholicism that was restored to its temporal and spiritual powers.

Indulging in the Constantinian parody of the divine right, Louis XIV persisted in hiding (under the pomp of a Church in which Bossuet acted like Lully[1]) a tormented spinelessness that was corroded by the sourness of prestige. The sun, with which he crowned himself in the manner of a mediocre person, only dispensed its light upon the courtiers of literature and the arts, apt to dilute their genius in the artifice of panegyric. On the other hand, obscurantism did not spare free spirits such as Cyrano de Bergerac, the peasants reduced by famine and the rapacity of the tax collectors, or the Protestants condemned by the thousands to the galleys. This was the reign of the bigots, who threw the poet Claude the Small upon the pyre for having celebrated the art of fucking while the sovereign warmed the bed of his ancillary couplings with remorse.

The quarrel of Jansenism thus inscribed itself in the archaic framework of theological disputes and the political tradition in which the temporal masters claimed that they should be legislators in spiritual matters.


Michel Baius

Born in 1515 in Meslin-l'Évêque in the Hainaut region, Michel Baius (or de Bay) was a fervent Catholic and Doctor at the University of Louvain who combated Lutheranism and Calvinism, which had become widespread in the Netherlands by basing themselves on the Scriptures that the Protestants erected as the supreme authority.

With his friend Jean Hessels, Baius set against Calvin – for whom mankind, irremediably bad, was completely in the hands of a capricious God – a manner of softening the [otherwise harsh] doctrine that went back to Augustine of Hippo. For Baius, nature was originally good, but eminently corruptible. Adam sinned freely and, through his sin, lost the control he had exercised over his senses. Ever since then, mankind had felt the attraction of concupiscence so vividly that it had not been able to resist it.

Calvin drew from the Augustinian notion of predestination the idea that, saved or damned by God’s will alone, the [human] creature had no other choice but to assume the burden of his misery in a constant torment in which all pleasure was obscenely dissonant. But predestination also put within reach of all the argument that everything was permitted because God mocked every human creation. Hardly suspected of debauchery and licentiousness, Baius simply opened the door of theological free will on the desperate maceration to which devout Protestants dedicated themselves.

At first, the conceptions of Baius and Hessels did not shock the Cardinal of Granville, who was the Governor of the Netherlands, nor the papacy, since the two theologians participated in the Council of Trento.

Even when Pius V reacted in a Papal Bull that condemned seventy-three propositions advanced by Baius, the latter – whose name had not been mentioned – remained the Chancellor of the University of Louvain and submitted a retraction in good graces.

Among his adepts were a theologian from Louvrain, Jacques Janson, and the Bishop of Ypres, Cornélius Jansénius, who promised to wash Baius’s reputation clean of suspicions of heterodoxy, which were unmerited in their eyes.

Meanwhile, the Jesuit Lessius revived the quarrel in the milieus that were eagerly waiting for theological speculations to which they attributed public interest but that the majority of the people – already sufficiently encumbered by the constraints of Mass, the sacraments and ecclesiastic rituals – easily dispensed with.

Lessius estimated that sinners lost nothing of their means to accede to the eternal life of the heavens. He agreed with the opinions of the Spanish Jesuit Luis Molina (1536-1600), for whom the divine presence did not hinder mankind’s free will in its choice between good and evil.

In the wooden language of theology, what expressed the discord between the theses expounded by Molina in The Concordance of Grace and Free Will and Jansenism, unless it was in fact the dissent between the Christian presence that governed the world at the cost of necessary compromises and an eremitic Christianity that sought in retreat (far from the world) the feverish and anguished arrival of an intransigent God? As Molière illustrated the situation, it was Tartuffe against the misanthrope of Port-Royal.[2]


Cornélius Jansénius

Born in 1585 near Leerdam in Holland, Cornélius Jansénius studied at Utrecht and Louvain, where his teacher was Baius’ disciple, Jacques Janson. Jansénius was friends with Duvergier de Hauranne, the future Abbot of Saint Cyran. He devoted himself passionately to the study of Augustine of Hippo and the theses that he opposed to those of Pelagius. After a stay in France, he returned to Louvain; he believed he had discovered in Hippo’s philosophy arguments that would properly rehabilitate Baius. It is not easy to disentangle the motives that incited him to confront pontifical thunderbolts and the powerful party of the Jesuits. His affection for Jacques Janson? The hope of shining in the faraway reflection of the pyres? A rigor that corresponded to his taste for asceticism and that incited him to condemn the discreet license of the confessors who mixed devotion with the perfume of the boudoir and practiced in theological fashion a kind of psychoanalysis well before there was such a thing?

“The more I advance,” Jansénius wrote to Duvergier de Hauranne, “the more the affair frightens me (...). I do not dare to say what I think about predestination and grace out of fear that, when all is said and done, what has happened to the others will happen to me” (that he would be condemned).[3]

Jansénius had the thoughtfulness to die from the plague in Ypres shortly after he sent a letter to Pope Urban VIII that declared he was disposed to approve, improve or retract his statements “according to what would be prescribed by the voice of thunder that comes from the clouds of the Apostolic See.”[4]

His posthumous work, the Augustinus, published in 1640, was condemned by Urban VIII two years later.

The Father of Avrigny summarized Jansénius’ doctrine in his Chronological and Dogmatic Memoirs.

“That since the fall of Adam, pleasure is the unique spring that moves the heart of man; that this pleasure is unavoidable when it comes and is invincible when it has come. If this pleasure is celestial, it brings virtue; if it is terrestrial, it causes vice; and the will necessarily finds itself led by the stronger of the two. These two delights, the author says, are like the two plates on a balancing scale; one cannot rise without the other one descending. Thus, invincibly but voluntarily, man does good or evil according to whether he is dominated by grace or cupidity.”[5]

Here is proof – if proof was needed – that the roots of all that constituted controversial religious matters resided in the tormented attitudes of individuals when they were confronted by the pleasures of a life that was denied them by virtue of the mandates of heaven and the Spirit, which were the dreadful abstractions of the earth and the body, respectively.

The Church’s obsessive fears were not caused by the scandalous licenses to which pious Jansénius was improbably given access, but by the determination imputed to the man, which, though it was turned towards the most devout asceticism, removed the utility of dogma and clergymen from the government of beings and things.

Jansenism moreover quite rapidly took shape from within a Calvinism that had been transplanted into a society that had still not delegated its powers to free enterprise and the devotion to money sanctified by God.

John Duvergier de Hauranne saw his mission in the propagation of the doctrine of his friend Jansénius. His rigor was more pleasing because the enjoyment of pleasures chilled by remorse had led to the complacency of disappointment. He won the sympathies of the Arnauld family, especially Pascal and Nicole, which was enough to support the monastery of Port-Royal and erect it as the bastion of Jansenism.

When John Duvergier died in 1643, the “Great Arnauld” succeeded him and took over the leadership of the movement, which he treated as if it were a family affair. It is not useless to dwell a little upon this clan, which brandished before the court [of France] and [the Church of] Rome a theological arsenal whose fire-power seemed to result from the unpleasant relations that divided the members of a brotherhood that was as holy as it was tormented.


The Arnauld Family

Originally from Herment, in Puy-de-Dôme, Antoine Arnauld (1560-1619) was born to a Protestant father whom Saint Barthélemy convinced to convert to Catholicism. Antoine settled in Paris in 1577 and professed a disdain for the glory of weapons and the conquest for royal favors, and so made religion his field of battle. From him came a breed of lawyers and scholars whose Puritan rigor, taste for authority, propensity for revolt and solid business sense would have turned towards Calvinism if Jansenism had not furnished a better opportunity.

A counselor to Catherine de Medici after he studied at the University of Paris and the recipient of a law degree from Bourges while studying under Cujas, Antoine Arnauld then entered the bar and applied himself with ardor to several polemics against the Jesuits. A Gallican and nationalist, he mocked their “blind obedience to a Spanish General,” defended the University of Paris against them, and was opposed to their return after [Jean] Châtel’s attack against Henry IV caused them to be banished from France.

Antoine’s wife, Catherine Marion (who became a nun at Port-Royal in 1641), gave birth to twenty children, among whom were Catherine, Jacqueline-Mary-Angélique, Jeanne-Catherine-Agnès (author of a book called Letters), Anne, Mary, and Madeleine, who belong to the Abbey, as did Robert and Antoine, the twentieth child, who became known as the “Great Arnauld.” Henri Arnauld became the Bishop of Angers, thereby providing his family – always at the frontiers of heresy – with the pledge of his orthodoxy.

The last child of Catherine Marion, the Great Arnauld (born in 1612), was seven years old when his tyrannical and brutal father died. The child was educated by his mother or, more exactly, by Jean Duvergier de Hauranne, the celebrated Abbot and spiritual director of Saint-Cyran, who presided over the destiny of Port-Royal. Yet the world seduced little Antoine; jurisprudence attracted him; he frequented the literary circles of Madame de Rambouillet; and he became affected and imitated [Vincent] Voiture. But his fate had been decided: he belonged to theology. Enrolled at the Sorbonne in 1633, he studied Augustine under the spiritual direction of Saint-Cyran. The latter, for whom “nothing is as dangerous as knowledge,” imposed ordeals on the young man: fasting twice a week, praying and reading the Holy Scriptures on bended knees.

After being ordained a priest, the young man entered Port-Royal one year later (in 1641), resolved to “flee the conversations of the world like they were poisoned air.” One says that he pushed the love of mystery to the point of denouncing as false a thesis that he judged to be too intelligible. On Frequent Communion (1643), which was published the year that Saint-Cyran died, brought him to the head of the Jansenist current and aroused the hatred of the Jesuits, who schemed to incarcerate him in the Bastille. During the twenty-five years that his retreat lasted, the Great Arnauld engaged in polemics against the Jesuits ([writing] New Heresy in Morality and The Moral Practice of the Jesuits), which furnished Pascal with the material for his Letters Written to a Provincial. Returned to grace in 1669, the Great Arnauld became friends with [Nicolas] Boileau[-Despréaux] and [Jean] Racine, and violently attacked Calvinism, thereby joining his brother, Henri, the Bishop of Angers, who applauded the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

When politics took a hostile turn at Port-Royal, the Great Arnauld fled to Mons, Tournai and Brussels, where he died in 1694. A letter from his friend, the Abbot of La Trappe, showed the esteem in which he was held: “At last, Monsieur Arnauld is dead. After pushing his career as far as he could, it had to come to an end. Whatever else one says, these questions are now closed.”[6] To Abbot Bremond, he was “a theological machine-gun in perpetual movement, but completely empty of interior life.”[7] It took little time to see that Arnauld’s grandeur resulted from an accumulation of pettiness.

A similar tissue of gossip and eloquent refusals of the world animated the life of Robert, called Arnauld d’Andilly. His Memoirs served his own glory more than that of the God he claimed to venerate: “I have never had ambition, because I have had too much of it.” The empire of the absolute nevertheless agreed with his tastes for intrigue and influence-peddling. A madrigal that he offered in the manner of the Guirlande de Julie[8] showed that he wedded devotion to gallantry without too much difficulty. Saint-Cyran made Robert his universal legatee on the condition that he retired to Port-Royal. Robert then used all kinds of pretexts to delay the date of his retirement. He schemed at becoming the private tutor of the Dauphin; he published Stanzas on Diverse Christian Truths; he wrote a poem on the life of the Christ; and produced his Letters, in which he took care to include endorsements from the Jesuits. All in vain. The charge that he so coveted escaped him and disappointment finally pushed him to Port-Royal, where he hastened to send six of his daughters (out of his fifteen children). The news of his retirement, orchestrated for so long, made him a celebrated person and Jansenism fashionable.

In 1664, the dispersion of the community caused Robert to go into exile in Pomponne, where one of his sons lived. Having been an odious father, he seemed execrable to his daughter-in-law, who saw him die without experiencing displeasure in 1674. He had translated Augustine’s Confessions, Saint Theresa’s works and Flavius Joseph’s History of the Jews.

Born in 1591, Jacqueline-Mary-Angélique, the second daughter of Antoine, was of a completely different nature. Her brutal frankness broke with the caution of Robert and the Great Arnauld, people who were much closer to Tartuffe than to Moliere’s Misanthrope. Intelligent and lively, she preferred marriage to the Abbey, which was imposed on her from the age of seven. “You would like me to be a nun,” she said. “I would quite like that, but on the condition that I am the Abbess.” At the age of nine, she made her profession of faith, but not without specifying that she “felt free in front of men, and committed to God.” Her involuntary vocation was always a horror: “I was cursed when men, not God, made me the Abbess and when the monks of the Cîteaux Abbey consecrated me at the age of 11.” Her father had to remain on the other side of the grill when visited by her. When he [in response] treated her like a parricidal monster, she stated: “My parents made me a nun at the age of nine, when I did not want to be one; today they want me to damn myself by not observing my rules.”

While one after another of her sisters entered Port-Royal, she became fervent as if overcome by a somber and desperate ecstasy. Named Abbess in 1642, she wedded the cause of Jansenism and did not hesitate to treat Pope Innocent X as a deceiver when he condemned the five propositions of Augustinus in 1653. God was the weapon of her vengeance against the men who banished her from the world. This passionate woman, whose intelligence and sad but fiery sensuality merited a destiny that was better suited to her hopes, died in 1661, while Pope Alexander promulgated new condemnations [against Jansenism] in a formulary that the clergy had to sign.


Motivated more by hatred of the Jesuits than by religious conviction, a popular current lauded the Jansenists. It applauded their rebellion against Rome and their insolence in the face of a monarch who was as vain as he was petty, and whose military defeats continued to besot him.

Reduced to silence by the threat of corporeal punishment decreed by Louis XIV, the Jansenists went to Holland, from which they poured pamphlets. A Jansenist Church founded in the Netherlands continued to exist until the Nineteenth Century. In France, where the fight was taken up by Pasquier Quesnel, the condemnation of his propositions in 1713 by the Papal Bull Unigenitus[9] confirmed the end of a movement that passed away less on its own than due to the decline of theology, that is, the language of God.

Stripped of its celestial arguments, the rigor of morality revealed the effects of repression through the hysterical manifestations that produced neither religious homilies nor political speeches. The burial of Deacon [François de] Pâris (a model of Jansenist fervor) in the cemetery at Saint-Médard in Paris brought about graveside convulsive outbursts and miraculous recoveries that exhilarated the Parisians. An edict that prohibited convulsion-inducing assemblies gave rise to the following celebrated inscription: “In the name of the King, do not make miracles at this place.” In 1787, Bonjour – the parish-priest of Fareins, nearby Trévoux, who continued the tradition of the convulsionists – crucified his mistress on the cross of his church in the hope of producing new miraculous recoveries.

From the Great Arnauld to Bonjour, Jansenism fulfilled the destiny that modernity had reserved for the heresies: to become sects at the same time that the Churches and the thunderbolts that Jansénius ingenuously brought forth from the Holy See entered into the ideological spectacle, where – subverted by the great apparatuses of the State and their violations of consciousness – they lived an existence that was more and more marginal, until one day they no longer appeared underneath the cover of the folkloric rites that concerned birth, marriage and death, and, secondarily, trips on Sundays.


[1] Translator: Jean-Baptiste de Lully (1632-1687) was an Italian-born French composer, attached to the court of Louis XIV. Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) was a French bishop and theologian.

[2] Translator: Written by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere (1622-1673), Le Tartuffe, or l’imposteur was banned by Louis XIV in 1664.

[3] Abbé Pluquet, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire des égarements de l’esprit humain par rapport à la religion chrétienne, or Dictionnaire des hérésies, des erreurs et des schismes, Besançon, 1817, II p. 213.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 214.

[6] Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie ecclésiastique, article “Arnauld.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Translator: The Garland of Julie (1641) was a collectively written group of madrigals, commissioned by Charles de Sainte-Maure in order to woo Julie d’Angennes.

[9] Translator: named for the first word in its opening phrase, Unigenitus dei filius (“Only-begotten son of God”).


(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)



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